Breaking Down Australia's Defense White Paper 2013
Image Credit: Office of the Prime Minister: Australia

Breaking Down Australia's Defense White Paper 2013


In an increasingly contested Asia, with China rising and America rebalancing, middle powers are struggling to redefine their defense strategies.  One such player, Australia, has now done so in a way that seeks to reconcile its extensive national interests with a close U.S. alliance, a web of new Asian security partners and a relationship of mutual respect with China.

It almost succeeds, but stumbles on a critical factor – money.  The current Australian Labor government is underspending on defense and so far the conservative opposition – likely to win power in an election due this September – is not promising much more.

Four years ago, the then Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd launched a defense white paper amid furious concern about China’s destabilizing rise. A much stronger Australian Defence Force was promised with new-generation submarines, cruise missiles, and joint strike fighters. This blunt document and its unusually clumsy diplomatic handling added to a drumbeat of political mistrust between Australia and its largest customer.

But a lack of credible budgeting undermined this vision of projected Australian firepower, and Canberra was caught committing the cardinal sin of statecraft: speaking loudly whilst carrying a small stick, the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum.

With a quite different defense white paper launched last Friday, successor Prime Minister Julia Gillard treads a notably more cautious line, declaring that Australia "does not approach China as an adversary." China is listed this time as a military partner, complete with bilateral exercises, confidence-building dialogue and even an Australia-China Military Culture and Friendship week. 

The document builds on Ms. Gillard’s optimistic narrative of a prosperous ‘Asian Century’. It offers some even-handed and sophisticated appraisals of U.S.-China relations, and some acknowledgement of the need to watch for and manage risk, but does not fully convey how the Asian strategic environment is deteriorating and the possibilities of conflict rising.

So whereas the Chinese saw the Rudd plan as a red rag, it is tempting to caricature Australia’s new strategy as raising a white flag.

That is certainly not fair: alliance commitments still feature fundamentally in Canberra’s military strategy. The white paper says Australia will uphold a rules based-order, is prepared "to conduct conventional combat operations to counter aggression or coercion against our partners," and commits to buying electronic warfare aircraft that could help in such a contingency.

It also confirms steps to use Australian territory in support of the Obama Administration’s Asia pivot, beyond the presence of Marines in Darwin. Notably, airfields in northern Australia and the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean will be upgraded. This needs to be done for Australia aircraft anyway, notably the new P-8A Poseidon fleet currently being acquired, but will open the way to their possible future use by the U.S. military.

Notably, the white paper rejects the idea, advanced by prominent scholar and former official Hugh White, that Australia will somehow have to choose between the United States and China, and emphasizes the likelihood that those powers will succeed in avoiding major conflict.

The white paper also redraws the map of Australian security in a way that may not appeal to Beijing. It makes Australia the first country officially to define its region of strategic interest as the Indo-Pacific. This in itself is not an anti-China move, since the Indo-Pacific is above all an objective description of the super-region in which China is rising, given its large economic, energy and diplomatic equities across the Indian Ocean. And it is a natural fit with Australia’s two-ocean geography and the increasing attention being paid to resources development and military infrastructure in the country’s sparsely-populated north and west.

January 29, 2014 at 21:47

beating drums in order to pay protection money haha…

the real threat to me is that japan is killing or the marine produce industries by polluting the whole pacific with highly nuclear water and fall out from Fukushima …killing all the whale and dolphines for their own food ….

August 16, 2013 at 16:58

First of all the Lockheed Martin F35 is going down as the biggest disaster in aviation history. Australia is going with the Boeing F18 Super Hornets.

The Americans are desperately trying to drum up military weapons sales in Asia, largely because the EU countries are 1) all buying EU made weapons and 2) the EU countries are bidding against the US in the Middle East and getting a lot of the business.

Apparently the Russians are doing well in Asia, they are selling a lot of their fighter jets because they are well priced and do the job, something the gerrymandered US weapons manufacturers fails to do.   

America's end goal is to well military weapons not increase security in the world, something that everyone is all too aware of.


May 28, 2013 at 12:46

When all countries especially concerning Indian Ocean are in an arms race to accumulate with speed the best military gear available; Australia having such an abundant availability of resources should NOT sit idle in this environment.

Military independence, to defend itself is required with the given climate. China is no where near US military capability, BUT China has proven that it has many disputed claims to which it will use force when necessary. Australia cannot be protected by USA- especially with the current military standing. 


[...] Breaking Down Australia’s Defense White Paper 2013 ( [...]

May 13, 2013 at 08:04



May 13, 2013 at 01:12

Australia's strategic interests are best served in incubating its technology sector and leveraging its national brand and skills in communication and marketing. Purchasing massive and expensive first line technology equipment that will never stand up to even an Indonesian navy let alone the Chinese is just another sop to the defense industry.

May 10, 2013 at 17:57

Breathe, take a deep breathe and breathe.


Your writing is just constant. No gaps between points that you are making, no flow of argument.


Break it into sentences and paragraphs. Highlight your points by beginning on a new line with a capital letter.

May 10, 2013 at 12:58

2.5% of GDP spend for military should be about Australia's level given its enormous size and geographic as well as Alliance committments. The fact its 1.6% of spend is pretty laughable.

But of course 2.5% of spend could never be accomodated so long as incompetent Governments are in command. I'm looking at you Julia.

May 8, 2013 at 17:28

No country has threatened Australia, All this hype about the need for miltary hardware (like the F-35) only adds profit to the military industrial complex. Sooner or later the nation's military prances about, wielding "Maslow's hammer" and everthing looks like a nail.

May 8, 2013 at 12:02

Who is threatening Australia?… well it would be amusing if North Korea decided to commit suicide and as part of its final death throes issue orders for its submarine fleet to wage unrestricted warfare. If I was a North Korea sub skipper the softest target I could go after woukd be to star firing torpedos into the vast array of merchant shipping that stacks up in Australian waters in our Northern ports to be loaded with liquid gas, coal, iron ore etc. As always people think in conventional terms. Want to bring the West to its knees and cause its fragile recovering system of international trade nased upon mercantile shipping between a loose alliance of trading nations?… target the merchant shipping. Australia is an island continent nation whose prosperity is based upon an export industry. Even a limited war on the Korean penisular which brinngs merchant shipping to a halt could threaten the whole fragile economic system. As an Australian I dont worry all loose sleep about fantasy bogeymen threats such as Indonesia… I wake up with a chill going through my body imagining what one or two North Korean submarines could do in our waters targeting our trade with our 'Asian Century' partners. The spectre of a bulk liquid gas tanker exploding off one of ports as we polish electronic attack aircraft or joint strike strike fighters or applaud and cheer a boutique army would seriously expose the fact that Australia, and its military and this Defence White Paper the truth we are incapable of defending our strategic interests. Australias strategic interests are not conventional arm chair general theorists locked in world war two thinking that war is about invasion or defence of 'land masses'… Its interests are protecting its international trade with its international partners. The weak link being the bulk shipping. Australias navy is incapable now of even defending its own territorial waters from leaky wooden boats full of asylum seekers. What chance against a few determined North Korean submarine skippers. You may laugh. But several years ago the Royal Australian Navy had to seize a North Korean merchant ship operating in our waters as a floating heroin distribution factory as part of North Koreas efforts to earn foreign currency, our waters are known to the North Korean nation as a 'profitable' place to operate. And merchant shipping bound for South Korean or any ally of South Korea such as Japan is a legitimate target if the pensiular ever goes 'hot' and our navy is a joke. But hey, Joint Strike Fighters and EF-18G Growlers will look very pretty all polished on the ground.

May 8, 2013 at 08:05

The only possible candidate is Indonesia, but this will be well into the future when Indonesia becomes a more sophisticated economy with its accompanying military capabilities.  Australia must start preparing its population for a closer cultural tie with its next-door neighbour.

May 8, 2013 at 05:49

I don't think anyone is threatening Australia.  It's a matter of balancing soft and hard power.  Without a robust military capability, Australia risks falling into the same trap that Japan is struggling to overcome with its foreign policy, namely that soft power alone is rarely sufficient to cement one's influence on the world stage.

Of course, too much hard power is China's problem right now, so I doubt Australia will be looking to emulate either China or Japan. 

May 8, 2013 at 01:11

I agree that Australia's foreign policy requires teeth.  It's one thing to be non-threatening, but another thing altogether to not be taken seriously.

I think Australia may be hedging its bets by relying upon a "Green Beret" form of military wherein a small but highly trained corps of soldiers acts as a force multiplier for whatever local ally one may have.  If this is the case, the numerically inferior Australian military could still pull their own weight, so to speak.

May 7, 2013 at 22:08

But who threatens Australia?

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